China Environmental News Digest

Daily updated Environmental news related to China

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

China edges towards a greener shade of red

Jonathan Watts in Beijing

Tuesday March 6, 2007 The Guardian

· PM gives environment prominence in speech

· Efficiency and slower growth hard to achieve

Pagodas inside a Beijing steel factory

The prime minister, Wen Jiabao, issued an environmental wake-up call to China yesterday, saying the world's fastest-expanding economy had to move away from red-hot growth towards a greener, leaner, slower model of development.

In his annual report to parliament - one of the key speeches in the political calendar - Mr Wen warned that wealth creation was unsustainable without improvements in energy efficiency and reductions in pollution.

Green issues were given more prominence in the address than promises on education and health, measures to ease the inequality between rich coastal cities and poor inland villages, and a verbal defence of Taiwan after a fresh flare-up in tension across the straits over the weekend.

Although Mr Wen has a reputation as the most environmentally conscious member of the politburo, his comments indicated how far the environment has risen up the political agenda as the problems of water shortages, sulphurous air and global warming take an increasingly evident toll on human health.

Seventy per cent of China's rivers are contaminated. Beijing is one of the most polluted cities in the world. In the south, Himalayan glaciers are melting. In the north, encroaching deserts are threatening the livelihoods of 400 million people.

The deterioration of the environment is hurting social stability. Among the tens of thousands of public protests each year, pollution fears are frequently cited among the motives for mass demonstrations against new factories, dams and roads.

Mr Wen said the state would shut down inefficient and dirty power plants and foundries to "bring pollution under control and protect the environment".

In the past, leaders have found it easier to make such promises than keep them. Mr Wen acknowledged that China had failed to meet its target of reducing pollution discharges last year.

The world's most populous nation is now on course to overtake the US as the biggest producer of greenhouse gases by 2009.

It is also making slow progress on reducing waste. According to the latest five-year plan, China should use 20% less energy per unit of economic output by 2010. Last year, however, it managed to improve energy efficiency by only 1%. Mr Wen said these failures were partly the fault of local governments which failed to abide by national environmental laws.

"We must make conserving energy, decreasing energy consumption, protecting the environment and using land intensively the breakthrough point and main fulcrum for changing the pattern of economic growth," he said in a speech lasting more than two hours at the opening session of the National People's Congress in Beijing's Great Hall of the People.

The 3,000-member parliament, which meets for less than two weeks each year, performs the largely ceremonial task of rubber-stamping the budget and bills approved by the Communist party. But the prime minister's statement sets the government's direction for the year ahead and opens up opportunities for debate.

Cooling the economy is proving difficult. Mr Wen announced an 8% economic growth target for this year, which would be a significant slowdown from the 10.7% rate of 2006. But similar targets set in the past have significantly undershot the true pace of expansion.


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